President Obama Lays Out Plans for High-Speed Train Travel

Some say president's plan for high-speed rail is not worth the investment.

April 16, 2009, 11:06 AM

April 16, 2009— -- The vice president has been commuting on the train between Washington, D.C., and Wilmington, Del., for more than 35 years. The president is envious of Europe's speedy railways. They stood together today to announce their plans to revolutionize U.S. train travel.

"There's no reason why the future of travel should lie somewhere else, beyond our borders," President Obama said today in laying out the new transportation plans. "Building a new system of high-speed rail in America will be faster, cheaper and easier than building more freeways or adding to an already over-burdened aviation system, and everybody stands to benefit."

Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood today said the plan will "jumpstart a new era in American train travel" and called the investment in train travel an environmental "game changer."

The money needed for the president's plans begin with an $8 billion "down payment" from the stimulus bill, to be followed, he hopes, by $1 billion per year for five years, requested in the federal budget to accelerate the program.

First on the to-do list is upgrading railways like the one that carries travelers between Washington and Boston on America's only high-speed train, Amtrak's Acela. Next up would be creating new high-speed corridors in places like California, the Pacific Northwest and the Southeast.

The Federal Rail Administration intends to start divvying up grant money for states in late summer.

Travelers like Victoria Cassano, who rides the rails twice a week between her job in Washington and her home in New York, is on board with the president's plan.

"I think we should be funding these types of systems," Cassano told ABC News last week. "This is a great way to travel."

But others say there are miles to go. Critics say the administration's plans are unrealistic and a waste of money, especially given that American cities are, in their eyes, separated by distances that are not conducive to this kind of travel.

It's a huge investment that Daniel Mitchell, senior fellow at the CATO Institute, a libertarian think-tank, called "just ludicrous," given the tanking economy.

"If California voters want to throw money down a rat hole for high-speed rail, then let them," Mitchell said. "At least that is not going to cost the taxpayers of Minnesota and South Carolina any money.

"You might as well have the government invest in nuclear-powered bicycles," Mitchell added. "That's probably the only thing I could imagine that would be more of a waste of money than inter-city rail."

Since 1980, every state effort in the United States to build high-speed rail has failed. Budget-battered California has proposed a 220-miles-per-hour bullet train that would link San Francisco to Los Angeles in two-and-a-half hours -- with a price tag of $45 billion.

President Says U.S. Train Travel Lags Behind Other Countries

America is miles behind. In Japan, the bullet train can wisk passengers from one city to the next at nearly 200 miles an hour. It's the same on France's TGV train, where passengers can get from Paris to Lyon in a little less than two hours. A dozen countries around the world enjoy high-speed rail, but America is not one of them.

"I know that this vision has its critics," Obama said today. "There's those who say high-speed rail is a fantasy. But its success around the world says otherwise."

And on his recent trip to Europe, Obama himself seemed envious.

"I am always jealous about European trains," Obama said April 3 in Strasbourg, France. "And I said to myself, 'Why can't we have high-speed rail?' And so, we're investing in that as well."

Meanwhile, the closest thing the United States has to high-speed rail is Amtrak's Acela service between Washington, D.C., and Boston.

The Acela can zip along at up to 150 miles an hour in one short stretch, but never reaches its full potential. At one point, the train slows to 30 miles an hour near a Baltimore tunnel; Overall, the Acela averages 80 miles an hour.

Jack Barton, a train engineer who has been at the helm of Amtrak's high-speed Acela train for a decade, said the speed he's able to reach on the Acela depends on "the geometry of the track, the curvature."

Still, supporters and frequent travelers, like Cassano, point out that in the Northeast where Vice President Joe Biden travels, more passengers ride the rails between Washington and New York than fly.

The government says there are 10 other areas of the country where faster trains could compete, time-wise, with cars and planes. Those include routes such as Chicago to St. Louis and Milwaukee; Miami to Orlando, Fla.; Eugene, Ore., to Seattle; and Ft. Worth, Texas, to Little Rock, Ark.

"The sweet spot for high-speed rail is where you have major urban areas that are 100 to 500 to 600 miles apart," said Mark Yachmetz, associate administrator for railroad development for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Yachmetz said that's where trains will be able to compete, time-wise, with cars and planes.

Amtrak hopes some of the stimulus money from the federal government can go toward improvements to the tracks it runs its trains on, most of which are owned by freight railroads.

"The track that's out there today ... for most of it, we can't go over 79 miles per hour," Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman told ABC News.

Boardman said Amtrak would like to increase the speed, on lines that serve major cities, to 110 miles an hour.

"This 110-mile-per-hour service," he said, "is what we ought to be looking at from an incremental basis."

Still, even Boardman admitted that the administration's plans are just the beginning.

"We are not going to see 200-miles-per-hour trains with an $8 billion investment," Boardman said.

Yachmetz said, "There has never been this degree of commitment to railroad investment and, in particular, high-speed rail investment."

ABC News' Karen Travers and Matt Hosford contributed to this report.

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